Sunday, November 24, 2019

Review: The Rosewater Redemption by Tade Thompson, at The Guardian

I have a short review of Tade Thompson's The Rosewater Redemption at The Guardian.  This is the concluding book in the Wormwood trilogy, whose first volume, Rosewater, was published as a standalone novel in 2016, then republished in the UK by Orbit last year (it went on to win the Clarke award earlier this year).  The second volume, The Rosewater Insurrection, was also published this year, which is going to cause some issues come award-nominating time.  This is a trilogy that deserves to be recognized by awards, but I'm really not sure which volume I prefer (maybe this is finally a justification for the best series Hugo category).

Since I have more space (and fewer limitations on things like spoilers) on my own blog, I'd like to elaborate a little on the review, and particularly the sense I got that the Wormwood trilogy changed as it expanded from a standalone to a series.  When I first read Rosewater (and even more so when I reread it last month, in preparation for writing this review) I was struck by how clearly it belonged to the subgenre of "zone" science fiction.  Originating with the Strugatsky brothers' 1972 novel Roadside Picnic (and the 1979 Tarkovsky film, Stalker, inspired by it), "zone" novels imagine that some segment of normal space has erupted into strangeness, a zone where the normal rules of physics, biology, and causality no longer apply, and whose residents--or anyone who wanders in--are irretrievably altered in some fundamental way.  The zone also represents a disruption to existing power structures, and the plots of zone novels often revolve around characters who have been dispatched by the state to infiltrate the zone in an attempt to control or at least understand it--an effort that is doomed to failure.  Recent examples of zone novels include Jeff VanderMeer's Area X trilogy and M. John Harrison's Kefahuchi Tract trilogy (and particularly the middle volume, Nova Swing).  I've even seen a persuasive argument that the HBO miniseries Chernobyl can be read as zone science fiction, because of its unreal, heightened depiction of the region around the exploded reactor, and because the effects that the unseen radiation it spews have on people, animals, and plant life in the surrounding areas track so closely with the subgenre's central trope of cellular-level change.

In Rosewater, the zone takes the form of an alien lifeform that has emerged in the Nigerian countryside and begun transforming the people around it.  Some it cures of illness and injury.  Some it transforms into grotesques.  And some it turns into mindless zombies.  The alien also seeds the atmosphere with spores that connect all living beings, and which some sensitive humans, like Rosewater's narrator Kaaro, can sense and manipulate.  Rosewater ultimately reveals that the purpose of the alien's actions is to transform humanity, replacing human cells with alien ones for an unknown purpose.  The novel ends on a note of ambivalence towards this process, with Kaaro resigning his position in the secret government department S45, who had wanted to use him to stop, control, or weaponize the alien transformation process, and deciding to retire quietly and await the inevitable end.

This note of resignation suits the zone subgenre, which often views the authorities outside the zone with more suspicion than the zone itself.  There's a thread of anti-imperialism running through the works in this group, with the zone representing a final bulwark the overweening power and ever-increasing control of the imperial, colonizing force.  Empires tend to assume that they can impose their own culture, worldview, and habits of thought on the regions they "discover", and the zone functions as a rebuke to that assumption.  It swallows all infiltrators--including agents of the empire--and instead of being colonized by them, it alters them so fundamentally that they often can't return to their home.  In some zone novels, the would-be infiltrators even choose this exile, because despite the cost it extracts, the zone is the only place where one can be free of the empire's influence.  (If this all sounds familiar, it's worth noting that another influence on zone novels is Conrad's Heart of Darkness.)

So it can feel a bit wrongfooting when Rosewater's sequels not only change their tone and main character (the cynical, nihilistic Kaaro becomes a secondary character, and his girlfriend Aminat, who is unthinkingly heroic, becomes the series's lead), but shift their attitude towards the aliens themselves.  Suddenly we're informed that the purpose of the aliens' transformation of human bodies is to turn us into suitable receptacles for the consciousnesses of the aliens' masters, held in storage after the ecological collapse of their world.  Though it initially seems as if humans and aliens will be able to reach a compromise in which both can inhabit the Earth, ultimately the novels' heroes decide that they need to remove the alien presence completely, a task at which they ultimately succeed.  By the end of the trilogy, all alien presence on Earth has, however implausibly, been removed, and the powers that the aliens granted some humans have receded alongside the danger they posed.

One cynical way to look at this tonal and thematic shift is that Thompson is making a commercial decision.  Stories of alien invasion and its defeat sell better than the nihilistic musings of an anti-hero who hates his government more than he hates aliens.  If Rosewater was to be expanded into a trilogy that people would buy, it needed to offer a concrete response to the aliens' plot, not the embrace of change and transformation that characterizes zone science fiction.  

That was my initial response to The Rosewater Redemption, and I have to admit that as it became clearer what the novel's trajectory was, I found myself feeling rather disappointed.  But then, as I write in the review, it occurred to me that one significant difference between the Wormwood trilogy and other works of zone science fiction is that its characters have already been colonized once.  There's a very different valence to a story about allowing yourself to be altered by a colonizer when you're not an empire, but a former victim of empire.  Thompson seems even to have anticipated reactions like mine, because he has several characters in the novel explicitly compare their current situation to the predicament of Nigerians who first met European explorers, who might have stopped the exploitation and colonization of their country before it even started if they'd acted decisively.

I'm still not sure how I feel about this ending--part of me wonders whether, in a science fiction scene in which so much literature (not the mention the readership) is still coming from the perspective of colonizers, it isn't too easy to overlook the difference inherent in telling this type of story from the perspective of the formerly-colonized.  On the other hand, you could easily make the argument that those readers (myself very much included) are not the trilogy's target audience, and it's kind of exciting that a major work of science fiction, one that draws s strongly from so many subgenres--not just the zone, but cyberpunk and noir and technothrillers--can elicit that "it's not for you" reaction.  It's a sign of the expansion of the genre, and maybe it'll spur a discussion of its core tropes that'll take us to places I can't yet imagine.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Hell is Other People: Some Observations on The Good Place's Experiment

Halfway into its fourth and final season, if there's one thing that fans of The Good Place have learned to expect, it is surprise.  Over the course of its magnificent, exhilarating run, the show has never failed to pull the rug out from under the audience's feet, burning through storylines at a dizzying rate, blowing up its premise and settings, and just generally making people say "what the fork?" a lot.  I think we can agree that only a fool would try to formulate a response to The Good Place's argument before that argument has been fully laid out, but nevertheless, that's what I'm going to try to do here.  In a little more than a day we'll find out how our heroes' experiment, to demonstrate that humans, when removed from the rigors of the world, can improve simply out of the desire to be better friends and neighbors, played out.  (My guess?  Chidi gained points, but lost them for punching Brent.  John gained points, but lost them for spilling Jason's secret.  Simone gained no points because she saw through the experiment from the start, and probably lost points for reasons we're about to discuss.  Brent gained no points except possibly right at the end when he tried to apologize to Chidi.  Not great, in other words.)  But before we get to that, I'd like to talk a bit about the experiment itself, and about its blind spots--which the show may or may not be planning to address.

Given how crucial the experiment was to both the show's story and its central argument about ethics, it's interesting to observe just how little attention the first half of the fourth season actually paid to it.  Far more time is spent on Eleanor's teething problems as the group's leader, or on the discovery that Janet has been kidnapped and replaced, and the mission to rescue her.  The actual experiment subjects and their struggle towards better behavior are given surprisingly short shrift.  But maybe that's not so surprising when you look at the subjects themselves.  Chidi is a solved problem--all Eleanor needs to do is nudge him out of his comfort zone and away from the destructive habits of indecision that made him lose points in life.  John mainly exists because the show has once again realized that it has run out of stories to tell with Tahani.  Simone is, as I said in my discussion of the third season, already a pretty awesome person, and the wrinkle that the show puts on that fact--that she sees through the experiment and refuses to participate in it--isn't really a problem of ethics.  Which leaves Brent, who is really the only experiment subject who matters, if only because of the way he affects everyone else.

The theory on which the experiment was built was that the force preventing people from improving themselves and living ethical lives was the impossibility of making good choices in a bad world.  By removing the pressures of capitalism, placing the subjects in an environment tailored to their comfort and happiness, and gently encouraging them to think about their behavior and how it could be improved, the theory went, you could produce better, more ethical human beings.  Another way of putting it is that the neighborhood the experiment takes place in both weaponizes and neutralizes privilege.  If John, for example, felt compelled to run a catty gossip blog because of financial pressures and jealousy over being left out of the glamorous life, then the neighborhood removes those motivations, making him just as pampered and privileged as the people he once wrote about.  And by equalizing everyone's status and giving them access to the same level of luxury and carefree existence, the neighborhood defangs the privilege of someone like Brent, who can no longer hold other people's jobs or social standing over their heads (something that he clearly rankles at, immediately demanding access to the better class of heaven he thinks he deserves).

But removing systemic inequality and its effects isn't the same as removing it entirely.  People bring their prejudices with them wherever they go, heaven very much included.  We saw this already with Eleanor in the show's early seasons, when she repeatedly forgot Chidi's last name and home country.  This problem is immeasurably exacerbated with Brent, who so visibly chafes at the loss of his white male entitlement that the existence of women (or women-like beings) like Eleanor and Janet, whom he can condescend to and sexually harass, is practically a type of methadone for him.  And, of course, he relentlessly peppers Chidi, Simone, Jason, and Tahani with racist microaggressions, which finally boil over into actual aggression when his self-aggrandizing, breathtakingly offensive novel is received with less than rapturous praise.

Which means that Brent poses a fundamental challenge to the principles on which the experiment was founded.  The best thing for everyone would be to isolate him with a bunch of Janet-babies until he learns to behave like a decent human being.  But the theory the show has presented to us so far is that we seek to improve ourselves through the impetus of human connection and our desire to be good for one another.  That theory breaks down in the face of Brent, who though not actively cruel or malicious, doesn't really seem to care about anyone, certainly not more than he cares for himself and his fragile ego, and whose reaction to concrete proof that he has hurt others is to reject it, and blame them for making him feel bad.  Even worse, Brent makes everyone around him a worse person by forcing them to deal with his entitlement.  He works on Simone's last nerve until she snaps and tells him what she really thinks of him.  He provokes Chidi into physical violence.  He is, in short, toxic to the very group dynamics on which the success of the experiment depends, and yet because he is part of the experiment, Eleanor and the others have to include him in their calculations, and in so doing make the experience worse for everyone else.

What this means is that despite her original intentions, what Eleanor has created in the new neighborhood is another bad place, where people like Chidi and Simone are trapped--for all they know, for eternity--with a man who will constantly make their lives slightly worse and more unpleasant.  What's more, even though Eleanor eventually comes around to Simone's way of thinking when the latter complains that, even in paradise, she has to put up with people like Brent, a purely utilitarian analysis of her situation would suggest that she shouldn't have done that.  Eleanor can't lose points; Simone can, and she probably does lose them when, encouraged by Eleanor, she stands up for herself against Brent (or, at the very least, she sets in motion a chain of events that causes other people, like Chidi, to lose points).  The best thing for all four subjects, for the fate of humanity, and even for Simone herself would have been for Eleanor to make it clear to Simone that she has no backup, and that heaven is just as insensitive to the struggles of black women as the real world was, in hopes that she'd become demoralized and let Brent walk all over her.  (Though this is, obviously, a dangerous strategy, since it risks demoralizing Simone too much, making her less likely to gain points herself.)

I think the show realizes and intends most of this, especially when it comes to Brent.  I'm not sure it realizes the inherent problems of this story when it comes to Simone.  In its struggle to come up with a character flaw that Simone could address during her time in the experiment, the show has landed on dogmatism--Simone, Michael explains, reaches snap judgments about people and doesn't tend to question herself.  That's not entirely consistent with her portrayal on Earth during the third season--Simone is, after all, the woman who kindly but firmly put Eleanor back on the right track after an epic, potentially friendship-destroying meltdown.  It's here that we see the problem in spending so little time with the experiment subjects over the first half of the season, because the show needed to demonstrate that the previously-fantastic Simone has fundamental flaws, and instead it just informs us of them.  All the more so because those flaws are pulling the double duty of demonstrating why Simone is wrong for Chidi while Eleanor is his real soulmate.  When Simone chooses not to stay and help Chidi save Brent--something we know, from long observation of their relationship over many iterations, that Eleanor would never have done--it feels like the show telling rather than showing.  We've seen so little of Chidi and Simone together (and what we have seen is eyebrow-raising--nearly a year into their relationship, Simone can only tell Chidi that she "likes" him?) that it's hard not to feel the writers' finger on the scales.

(While discussing the handling of Simone with Samira Nadkarni, she pointed out that the character squarely embodies the trope of the Strong Black Woman, someone who is so awesome, so righteous, and so self-sufficient that it's OK to deprive her of love and nurturing, often to the benefit of a white woman.  Simone's awesomeness is, paradoxically, used to explain why she's wrong for Chidi and Eleanor is right for him.  The last episode of the experiment even draws a direct equivalence between the two by having Simone, like Eleanor before her, be the member of her group to figure out that something is wrong with the good place--an equivalence that rankles a little when you think about it, since Simone was a kind, accomplished woman in her life on Earth, and Eleanor was an Arizona trashbag--only to starkly remind us of the difference between them, a difference rooted directly in Simone's strength and independence.  Meanwhile, Simone has failed to make connections with anyone else in the neighborhood, which is once again "blamed" on her strength and decisiveness, without considering that she, too, has needs that are not being answered.)

But an even bigger problem with deciding that Simone's flaw is that she's too sure of herself is how it ignores the context from which that trait emerges.  Simone is an intelligent, successful black woman in a world that doesn't value her, and which takes pains to remind her of that fact.  Self-confidence and decisive judgment are survival strategies for a person like her.  For the show to decry them--especially in a context in which one can't even argue that they are no longer necessary--is problematic on a level that I'm not sure it fully realizes.  And while leaving someone to die because you've decided they're not worth helping, as Simone does to Brent at the end of the experiment, is obviously an objectively bad act, the fact that this choice emerges from the same trait that has informed Simone's behavior towards Brent throughout the season creates a continuity that implicitly condemns all of that behavior.  It's not unreasonable to conclude that Simone has been losing points all along, simply for standing up for herself, for making Brent "feel bad" by calling out his racism and refusing to play along with his self-image.  So the show has created a world in which a black woman can be condemned to hell for not coddling a racist white man's feelings of entitlement.  Truly, this is the bad place.

One obvious response here (and one that I got more than a few times when I discussed this issue on twitter) is that the points system is meant to be seen as flawed.  But the thing is, it's not flawed in this particular way (or at least, not that we've been told yet; and six episode before the end of the show, it feels a little late to introduce this wrinkle).  We know that the points system is flawed because it doesn't take into account the unintended consequences of living in a tightly interconnected world where purely ethical action is almost impossible.  But what Simone did to Brent wasn't unintentional at all.  She knew that she would hurt his feelings, and decided to do so anyway because her own dignity was more important to her. 

The show has so far been completely silent on where that behavior falls ethically.  But through the framework of the experiment, it has consistently put Simone in the wrong for it.  Even if she isn't losing points, her decision to write off a person who doesn't deserve a second chance from her is literally dooming the human race, in stark contrast to Chidi, who keeps giving Brent second chances.  And yes, Chidi ultimately calls out Brent and this has an effect, but would that have been the case if Brent hadn't already been given objective confirmation that he belongs in the bad place?  It seems to me that in any other circumstances, he would have brushed off Chidi's criticism as he previously did with Simone's.  And even if we assume otherwise, what does that say?  That we should be endlessly nice to self-absorbed racists on the off chance that this makes them like us enough that our criticism of them finally punctures their veneer of self-regard?

In order to create a world that is truly perfect, that allows its inhabitants to become their best selves, it's not enough to remove hardship.  You also have to add justice, so that the maliciousness that people bring into that world can be addressed.  Which not only raises thorny questions--where does the line lie between righteous condemnation of evil, and acts that are evil in their own right?--but brings me back to my problem with the third season's conclusion, that this entire exercise feels pointless.  Why bother waiting until after people have died to help them become better, if the perfect world that's supposed to enable them to do this still has to deal with fundamental questions of prejudice and injustice?

Where I think the show is going with this is something like the concept of the bodhisattva, where people choose to spend time with the Brents of the world, and tolerate their ugliness, in the hope of helping them advance (and I suspect that this will end up happening in the real world, not just the afterlife).  But that has to be a choice, and by denying that choice to Simone, Eleanor not only makes it harder for her to improve, but literally places her in a form of hell.  I'd like to see the show acknowledge that going forward.